Whitney Finalists 2012: Final Thoughts

Three months ago I wrote a post with some of my initial thoughts on the 2012 Whitney Award finalists. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to read 25 books in three months and I wondered whether or not reading them all at once was a good idea. I have the same dilemma every year: read fiction by LDS authors all year in the hopes of catching at least some potential Whitney finalists (and to have the chance to nominate some books as well), or focus on a mix of LDS-related fiction, national-market fiction, and nonfiction like I usually do. Unfortunately there are just too many books in the world to ever be able to read everything I would like to, but reading choices and priorities are a topic for a different post. This year I read most of the finalists for the adult categories (I skipped both youth categories this year) within the short space of a few months, and while I think that this runs the risk of problems like burnout or a lack of perspective from reading so many similar books, I think I will stick to this strategy again next year. Well, actually next year’s plans for Whitney reading are still nebulous since I am starting a graduate degree in the fall. This may be my last Whitney-related post for a while. Enough blathering—on with the discussion!

General:  This category was a pleasant surprise and ended up being my favorite this year. I was nervous after last year’s general nominees were, for the most part, inspirational fiction that focused more on message than writing craft. This year’s general nominees were a mixed bag of styles and subjects, but they were all entertaining to read and all reflected a fairly high level of writing skill. Two of the books have no explicitly LDS-content and veer a bit close to the inspirational fiction line, but they still were ones I would recommend to any reader. The 13th Day of Christmas is not my favorite sort of book at all, but Jason Wright knows how to create a good story with memorable characters and a unique voice. The Rent Collector made me a little nervous because I worried about it being poverty-porn that exploits the suffering of the poor in Cambodia to provide uplifting messages for those of us who live in the developed world. There were a few problems with the voice and tone of the book, especially in the beginning, but I found myself sucked into a story that wove together elements from classic Western literature and Cambodian legends to create a beautiful, somewhat allegorical, story about redemption through literacy. Two of the other books, A Night on Moon Hill and Dancing on Broken Glass, were more like nationally-published women’s fiction, though both subtly included some LDS elements in the plot in ways that were organic to the story and didn’t distract. I thought Dancing on Broken Glass was my favorite book in the category due to the quality of the writing, though I know some people have been turned off by the maudlin plot. The final book, Paige, is the only one with an LDS main character and an LDS audience in mind, but I liked the way the author didn’t shy away from depicting some of the more difficult parts of life or the issues many LDS people face in their interactions with friends and neighbors (and potential dates) that are not members of the Church. Overall, I thought the books in this year’s General Fiction category were well-written and did a great job exploring the complexities of life and faith.

Historical: I already discussed one of the problems I noticed with several of the historical finalists in this post. I felt that three of the books had potential in their storylines, but could have used some editing to bring out more layers of complexity. Then, I was left with the dilemma of two great books that are great in entirely different ways. My Loving Vigil Keeping is a great example of a well-written historical romance with wit and charm; I’m really hoping there is a sequel so I can find out what happens to the characters—the only problem I had with the book was the ending, but if you are writing a book about a well-known historical disaster, there isn’t any way around killing off some beloved characters in the end. The Five Books of Jesus is also excellent, as a lyrical re-imagining of the life of Christ from the scriptures. I have a feeling that the winner in the category will entirely depend on the type of readers who vote, because from what I have seen, most readers are either going to hate Kelly’s book and love Goldberg’s, or vice versa. It was a tough choice.

Romance: I like reading romance and chick-lit quite a bit, although some nationally-published books are a bit too explicit even for my taste. Given that fact about me, usually the romance category is one of my favorites when it comes to the Whitneys. But this year I felt like most of the romance books had similar issues to the historicals—interesting plot ideas and engaging characters, but a lack of sparkle and polish that would make them stand out. I always enjoy Melanie Jacboson’s work, but her two books nominated this year were both a little bland compared to her two finalists from last year. Edenbrooke was an admirable copy of a Regency romance, but it felt a little too formulaic and lacked the depth and wit of Austen or Heyer.  Lady Outlaw seemed to suffer from the same issues, and I found it odd that, though the book was set in Utah in the mid-1800s, a generic church with a pastor was used in pivotal moments in the plot ; I thought the author missed an opportunity to seamlessly include some LDS elements in her story. Of Grace and Chocolate was the most interesting book in that it tackled some fairly big issues and included suspense along with the romance. I’m still hesitant to totally give it my blessing because the tone and pacing were uneven throughout the book; it could easily have been much longer and more deeply layered.

Mystery/Suspense: This is always a hard category to evaluate because so many different subgenres tend to be included. This year was no exception, with two cozy mysteries, a medical thriller, a paranormal romantic suspense novel, and a military/romantic suspense novel. I have read a few of Traci Hunter Abramson’s Saint Squad books now and I think her writing gets better with each one. I’ve never been a big fan of the conspiracy-theory/medical books that Gregg Luke writes, but at least year his book had much better editing and tighter writing than last year’s. Unfortunately the villain is much more interesting and developed than either of the two protagonists. I also think I’m just not the right audience for Rachel Ann Nunes’ Autumn Rain series. The books I enjoyed most were Josi Kilpack’s cozy mysteries, although my favorite of the two was Banana Splitbecause of the well-constructed character arc that described Sadie Hofmiller’s struggles to overcome her anxiety and doubts while trying to solve the mysterious death of a young mother.

Speculative: I’m afraid that the speculative category just about did me in this year. Given how many LDS authors write speculative fiction and publish it with national publishers, I was surprised that most of this year’s finalists were lesser-known authors that have either self-published or used smaller presses. When it comes to talking about this category, I’ve had the internal struggle choosing between being blunt and potentially offending authors, and just not saying anything at all. I don’t normally read much speculative fiction and it’s not my preferred genre, but even as a somewhat novice and less-than-interested reader, I still found major problems with the writing, plot, and characters in the books in this category.

Well, this post is much too long, though I could easily write more about each of the books I’ve read. I am curious to see what the results are from voting next week, because, based on my own writing and book review chatter I have read, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement among people about which books really deserve awards. In fact, I can’t even remember how I voted in a few categories just because I had two books in mind when it came down to voting. Even if I don’t always agree with the books that make it to the finals, or even the books that win in the end, I really love the Whitney awards and can’t wait to find out what the final decisions are next week.

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11 Responses to Whitney Finalists 2012: Final Thoughts

  1. Wm says:

    I enjoyed The Hollow City, but that’s the only one I’ve read in the Speculative category. I guess novella doesn’t count, but I thought both of Brandon Sanderson’s novellas from last year were quite good.

    • Jessie says:

      Yeah, I’m honestly not familiar enough with the speculative fiction market to know what has been published. I know we have a lot of LDS authors writing speculative fiction, but from my limited experience it seems like many of them are writing short stories or novellas, or writing for the youth market.

      • Marny says:

        The majority of LDS authors publishing speculative fiction in the national market are YA or MG books. You can see the majority of those categories’ nominees are national titles. It may also be that everyone expected that someone else already nominated their favorite national adult title and so didn’t bother, or that the standing favorites have won or at least been nominated repeatedly over the last few years and so people wanted to give other authors a chance.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Hi Jessie,

    I managed to squeeze in speculative fiction just before the deadline, and am now working on a post for AMV with my thoughts about the category. (I wound up reading speculative, YA speculative, and middle grades, which also turned out to be almost entirely speculative.) I had the same challenge in this category that you did. We’ll see how blunt I wind up being…

    I also read most of Dancing on Broken Glass and was very impressed by it. Then again, our relative reactions to last year’s finalists demonstrate that I’m perhaps more open to sappy plots than you are!

    I wish I could have read more. My one big complaint about the Whitneys is that there’s just not enough time to read them all, or anything close: 49 days for 40 novels, by my count. I understand that they’re working under tight constraints, but maybe it would be worth pushing out the banquet from May to June just to give people that extra month.

    • Jessie says:

      Yes, the time constraints are a big issue, especially as they add more categories and as more books are published and nominated. I’m grateful that the youth fiction books were split off from the adult ones, since that made it easier to just focus on one particular group, though I would have liked to have read some of the youth fiction also if I had the time. I am a fast reader but it still feels like a stretch to try and read everything in so little time.

      And, I’m not sure if I was clear, but I don’t mind sappy or melodramatic plots. I think Dancing on Broken Glass was one of my favorite books and I would be happy if it won Novel of the Year. I’m afraid that the Rent Collector is probably going to win in the General category though since it is a little more conventional in its tone and content–I’ve read a few reviews by other readers who were turned off by the ‘edginess’ of some of the descriptions of intimacy and other things in the book. It’s not much worse than most national-market fiction that I would compare it to, like books by Jodi Picoult or Lisa Scottoline, but compared to stuff published by Deseret or Covenant it has a darker feel.

      I think for me the problem comes in when plot or character are subordinate to a message that the writer is trying to express. Like last year’s finalist The Evolution of Thomas Hall had a fairly sappy plot, but there was no layering or nuance to the writing or the characters. I didn’t feel like the characters had any lives of their own–they were just there to serve as personification of values that the author wanted to portray (evolution=evil! children=innocent and pure!).

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        You won’t get any argument from me on The Evolution of Thomas Hall. I was thinking instead about Before I Say Goodbye, Rachel Nunes’s book from last year, which I believe I liked more than you did although we both agreed it was the best of category in general fiction.

        I don’t really understand how Dancing on Broken Glass can be considered as “edgy.” As I recall, we get a clear notion that the couple has a healthy sex life, but we’re never given any bedroom details and there’s no vulgarity about it. I’d think it would be a model for how this aspect of a relationship can be dealt with in a way that isn’t prurient or inappropriate. But then, that wasn’t my main concern as I was reading, so maybe I missed something.

        • Jessie says:

          Yeah, I didn’t think it was ‘edgy’ at all, but I could see how it could feel that way if you mostly read stuff published by Deseret, Covenant, or Christian publishers like Bethany House. I would even go so far as to say that the impression could come less from the content itself and more from the language choices and style.

          I think another book that readers could have similar issues with would be The City of the Saints, which contains fair amounts of swearing and violence (potentially even more disturbing because of the involvement of known historical figures)

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Correction: It was 80 days, not 49. (I forgot that March existed.) Which is definitely better, and makes me feel worse for not having read more titles during that time…

      • Th. says:

        .

        March always gets the shaft. I think it’s because we all spend March stressed out about the upcoming cruelest month.

        • Jessie says:

          Even that much time really isn’t enough to read and evaluate so many different books. I still think an additional month of time would be helpful.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      My review of the speculative fiction finalists is now up: http://www.motleyvision.org/2013/whitney-speculative-finalists-2012/

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